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Rufino Tamayo (1899 - 1991)


Prints & Multiples   

Rufino Tamayo (August 25, 1899 – June 24, 1991) was a Mexican painter of Zapotec heritage, born in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Tamayo was active in the mid-20th century in Mexico and New York, painting figurativeabstraction with surrealist influences.

Tamayo's Zapotec heritage is often cited as an early influence.

After his parents' death, Tamayo moved to Mexico City to live with his aunt. While there, he devoted himself to helping his family with their small business. However, after a while, Tamayo’s aunt enrolled him at Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas at San Carlos in 1917 to study art. As a student, he experimented with and was influenced byCubism, Impressionism and Fauvism, among other popular art movements of the time, but with a distinctly Mexican feel.[3] Although Tamayo studied drawing at the Academy of Art at San Carlos as a young adult, he became dissatisfied and eventually decided to study on his own. That was when he began working for José Vasconcelos at the Department of Ethnographic Drawings (1921); he was later appointed head of the department by Vasconcelos.

Rufino Tamayo, along with other muralists such as Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, represented the twentieth century in their native country of Mexico. After the Mexican Revolution, Tamayo devoted himself to creating a distinct identity in his work. He expressed what he envisioned as the traditional Mexico and eschewed the overt political art of such contemporaries as José Clemente Orozco,Diego RiveraOswaldo Guayasamin and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He disagreed with these muralists in their belief that the revolution was necessary for the future of Mexico but considered, instead, that the revolution would harm Mexico. In his painting, Niños Jugando con Fuego (Children Playing with Fire, 1947), Tamayo shows two individuals being burnt by a fire they have created, a symbol of the Mexican people being injured by its own choice and action. Tamayo claimed, “We are in a dangerous situation, and the danger is that man may be absorbed and destroyed by what he has created". Due to his opinion, he was characterized by some as a "traitor" to the political cause. Tamayo came to feel that he could not freely express his art; he therefore decided in 1926 to leave Mexico and move to New York City. Prior to his departure, Tamayo organized a one-man show of his work in Mexico City where he was noticed for his individuality. The artist returned to Mexico in 1929 to have another solo show, this time being met with high praise and media coverage.

Rufino Tamayo’s legacy in the history of art lies in his oeuvre of original graphic prints in which he cultivated every technique. Rufino Tamayo’s graphic work, produced between 1925 and 1991, includes woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and "Mixografia" prints. With the help of Mexican painter and engineer Luis Remba, Tamayo expanded the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the graphic arts by developing a new medium which they named Mixografia. This technique is a unique fine art printing process that allows for the production of prints with three-dimensional texture. It not only registered the texture and volume of Rufino Tamayo's design but also granted the artist freedom to use any combination of solid materials in its creation. Rufino Tamayo was delighted with the Mixografia process and created some 80 original Mixographs. One of their most famous Mixografia is titled Dos Personajes Atacados por Perros (Two Characters Attacked by Dogs).

In 1935, Tamayo joined the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). The LEAR was an organization in which Mexican artists could express through painting and writing their responses towards the revolutionary war and governmental policies then current in México. Although Tamayo did not agree with Siqueiros and Orozco, they were chosen along with four others to represent their art in the first American Artists’ Congress in New York. Now married, Rufino and Olga had planned on staying in New York only for the duration of the event; however, they made New York their permanent home for the next decade and a half.

In 1948, Tamayo's first major retrospective was held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Although his positions remained controversial, his popularity was high. Uncomfortable with the continuing political controversy, Tamayo and Olga moved to Paris in 1949 where they remained for the next decade.

Tamayo also enjoyed portraying women in his paintings. His early works included many nudes, a subject which eventually disappeared in his later career. However, he often painted his wife Olga, showing her struggles through color choices and facial expressions. The shared difficulties of painter and wife can be seen in the portraitRufino and Olga, circa 1934, where the couple appears broken by life's obstacles.

Tamayo also painted murals, some of which are displayed inside Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes opera house in Mexico City, such as Nacimiento de la nacionalidad(Birth of the Nationality, 1952).

Tamayo was influenced by many artists. María Izquierdo, a fellow Mexican artist with whom he lived for a time, taught Tamayo precision in his color choices. He selected colors true to his Mexican environment. He argued, "Mexicans are not a gay race but a tragic one..."

Other influences came from Tamayo's cultural heritage. One can say that Tamayo was one of the few artists of his era who enjoyed Mexico’s ethnic differences. He enjoyed the fusion of Spanish-Mexican-Indian blood and that is shown in some of his art pieces. In Lion and Horse (1942), Tamayo used pre-Columbian ceramics. Tamayo was proud of his Mexican culture because his culture nourished him and, by traveling to other countries, his love for Mexico became greater.

Tamayo's acute awareness of the disregard shown Mexican artists influenced him profoundly. For example, according to Jose Carlos Ramirez, "Tamayo's work did not have much value". Many people doubted that Mexican artists could actually create art. Under the Díaz regime, artists of Mexican origin were ignored by society; it was commonly held that they lacked the skills to surpass artists of European descent.

From 1937 to 1949, Tamayo and his wife Olga lived in New York where he painted some of his most memorable works. He had his first show in New York City at the Valentine Gallery. He gained credibility thereby and proceeded to exhibit works at the Knoedler Gallery and Marlborough Gallery. While in New York, Tamayo instructedHelen Frankenthaler at the Dalton School Tamayo, while in the United States, attended important exhibitions which influenced his art mechanics. From Ingres toPicasso and French art exhibitions, Tamayo was introduced to ImpressionismFauvism, and Cubism. Also, at an exhibition in Brooklyn in 1928, Tamayo came into contact with Henri Matisse, the French artist.

In a 1926 exhibition, 39 of Tamayo's works were displayed at the Weyhe Gallery in New York just a month after his arrival into the United States. This stands in stark contrast to the few showings which were held during his early career in México. The artist's sojourn in New York dramatically increased his recognition not only in the United States but in Mexico and other countries also.

Tamayo's method situates his composition as the focal point instead of emphasizing the subject alone. By doing so, one looks at the painting as a whole. He explained his approach to Paul Westheim as follows: “As the number of colors we use decreases, the wealth of possibilities increases". Tamayo favored using few colors rather than many; he asserted that fewer colors in a painting gave the art greater force and meaning. Tamayo’s unique color choices are evident in the painting Tres personajes cantando (Three singers), 1981. In this painting, Tamayo employs pure colors such as red and purple; his restraint in the choice of color here confirms his belief that fewer colors, far from limiting the painting, actually enlarge the composition's possibilities. With that being said, Octavio Paz, author of the book Rufino Tamayo, argues that, “Time and again we have been told that Tamayo is a great colourist; but it should be added that this richness of colour is the result of sobriety". By being pure or, as Paz explained, sober with his color choice, Tamayo's paintings were enriched, not impoverished.


"If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters, I would say without a moment's hesitation: Sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not." - Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz